How The Culling misses Battle Royale's point
In middle school I read the manga adaptation of Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale. I wasn’t old enough to read it, but when you’re a teenager, getting away with things you’re not supposed to is half the fun. Battle Royale was stylish, its villains were cool, the violence was gory, its sex was explicit. It was everything a teenager who didn’t want to live up to “standards” could have wanted. More importantly, though, its premise could get anyone’s mind racing; if I were stranded on an island with my classmates and had to kill them to survive, what would I do? Who’d be the ringers? Would I make it out alive?
The Culling, released on Steam’s Early Access back in March, turns Battle Royale into a multiplayer game. Sixteen players begin each match by emerging from a cage dropped on a random part of a large tropical battlefield. As a contestant on the game’s titular game show, you scavenge for weapons, items, and other resources you can use to kill your opponents and survive as long as you can. The match ends when there’s only one player left, or after twenty minutes (when a toxic gas floods the arena and kills everyone). If you die, that’s it. You can watch everyone else play or go find another match.
On its face, The Culling recreates the tension of a Battle Royale scenario. But it fundamentally misses the point of the stories that inspire it by stripping the premise (ordinary citizens forced to fight to the death) of its primary purpose.
To survive in The Culling, you need to play around with a few systems you commonly see in other survival games. The game uses a rudimentary crafting system where two rocks make a stone knife, two sticks make a bandage, and a stone knife and a stick make a spear. Out in the wild and in numerous abandoned buildings throughout the battlefield, you can find chests with stronger, more elaborate weapons in them. You can also call in a customizable air drop, which can deliver weapons, items, or armor. Crafting, opening chests, and calling in air drops all require a resource called F.U.N.C. (Flexible Universal Nano Compound), which you accumulate over time, by breaking down objects you find in vending machines, in stashes around the map, and on the bodies of dead contestants.
The Culling forces players to confront each other, so you can’t play defensively. You can’t find a hiding spot and pray you beat the timer (which isn’t a victory anyway) because every few minutes, toxic gas floods the outer edges of the map. You also can’t reliably avoid the enemy while you build up your arsenal, since what you’ll find in buildings and chests is random. Someone with better luck could outgun you long before you’re ready to fight.
When you come across someone else, The Culling emulates the desperation of two contestants fighting for their lives against their will; Combat is chaotic and disorienting, like Skyrim’s but with a rock-paper-scissors balance between attacking, blocking, and shoving instead of magic. You’ll find the occasional bow or gun, but most fights to force you into your opponent’s face. Although a tutorial teaches you some of the nuance to fighting other players, I found myself -- and most of the people I was fighting -- flailing around and mashing the attack button at each other, hoping we’d get more shots in and kill the enemy first.
Despite how clunky the combat can be, I wanted to do well at it, because there’s more to fighting there than button presses. If you know what you’re doing early on, you’ll have some nice gear by the time you find someone to fight. And it feels good to have out-planned someone rather than out-fought them. I haven’t won a match yet, but I got close a few times, and when I was one of two or three survivors left, I was in. I wanted to be the best damn murderer in Culling Land. And it works, because all the other elements goad you into trying to get better, invest more, and be the winner. When you kill someone else, you get that adrenaline rush that makes you think “hey, maybe I am good at this.” So you start wanting to prove that to yourself. I don’t care for most other survival games, but the competitive coating makes The Culling more approachable and fun for me.
I’m not alone. It’s taken off even in its Early Access from, where it quickly became a hit. That’s not surprising; anyone who’s seen Battle Royale or The Hunger Games has at one point imagined themselves as a contestant, and The Culling lets them do just that.
But after playing it for a few hours and trying to claw my way to a win, I realized it was missing something vital. Battle Royale and stories like it thrive on the backdrops they’re set against. Battle Royale has to justify its murderous contest by creating a totalitarian Japanese government (called the Republic of Greater East Asia) that uses the program as a way to scare citizens into obedience. In The Hunger Games, the contest is used as a way to both entertain and divide people by their District, preventing them from rising up against the government.
The crux of these stories eventually becomes escaping from or overthrowing the governments responsible for these arenas by any means necessary. You don’t root for the contest going as planned -- you root for someone to find a way to circumvent it. In Battle Royale, Shogo (a former winner of the program) helps protagonists Shuya and Noriko escape from the island they’re all on by pretending to kill them. In The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta force the game to a tie by refusing to kill each other. The story never ends with a real winner because doing that would obfuscate the point; that the very idea of forcing teenagers to kill each other is fucked up.
The Culling never condemns the contests it’s having you participate in. Instead, it gleefully embraces them as they are. The announcer who teaches you the game and lets everyone know when one player kills another is sadistically joyous, like you might expect. The contest isn’t completely fair due to the random distribution of weapons around the map. So while it apes the tone and sadism of Battle Royale or The Hunger Games, it never gets at what makes them so engaging beyond their premise.
Without that backdrop, playing The Culling means getting better at killing and surviving, removing some of the tension that comes with being pitted against someone in an all or nothing scenario. New players are likely to have to learn by trial by fire, as they die to people who already know their way around the map, who know how to find good items quickly, and who can build up F.U.N.C. more quickly. This might emulate the way real people might have unfair advantages in contests like this (an athlete to who learned how to survive in the boy scouts versus the average person, for example), but that undermines another point of Battle Royale: that someone’s value isn’t always in their physical prowess or survival skills. And when you start investing yourself in this game (by learning crafting charts, developing strategies, and learning the nuances of combat), you start buying into what the contest would have you believe: that someone’s value is all in their ability to fight and outthink others.
The closest it gets to actually emulating not just the premise but the ideas behind the stories it borrows from is in its team-based mode. In that mode, two people can work together and live out the real fantasy of these fictions -- that by working together, you’ll prove that cooperation, not competition, is how people ultimately thrive. But even then, you can’t actually subvert the game, of course. You can’t escape, can’t force the game to a new result, can’t overthrow the government of the game’s world. You can only play by the rules.
What you’re left to explore in The Culling (as of right now, anyway) is the most shallow appeal of something like Battle Royale -- the twisted contest that drew my teenage self to it. It doesn’t ask why a government would feel compelled to create such a contest in the first place. There’s only the blood, gore, and adrenaline of fight to the death.
I’ll admit that as a game, The Culling is fun. But it doesn’t speak to anything other than the thrill of competition, and when it equivocates someone’s success with someone else’s failure, it undermines the point Battle Royale was trying to get across. After all, what’s the point of surviving if you’re the only person left?
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who’d probably think a lot less of Battle Royale if he went back and read it today. He’s written for ZAM, Paste, Playboy, and several others. You can follow him on Twitter.